Monday, September 19, 2016

Escape from Gringo Gulch

While a friend of ours and I had a French Dip sandwich at a new restaurant Friday, and Stew and another friend enjoyed a cheeseburger and steakburger, all with sides of crispy French Fries, a question popped in my head: Are we in Mexico? Neither the sandwiches nor the fries had anything to do with France, and the hamburgers were definitely all-American.

Actually the question had germinated the weekend before when a friend invited Stew and me to an all-Mexican lunch at his ranch prepared by a Mexican woman friend of his. On the menu was a beef broth with chunks of sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots and what-not. Terrific as any soup I've ever tasted, to rival some of Stew's inspired creations. It came with rice with an assortment of vegetables mixed in and decorated with sprigs of cilantro. The main course was small chunks of slow-cooked pork. You put the pork on warm tortillas, accompanied by any or all of a selection of condiments—jalapeños, a red (or green?) sauce, cucumbers, grated cheese, chopped onions and cilantro and others I can't remember.

Caldo de res mexicano: Hmm, hmm good. 
 All-Mexican and all delicious. Why don't we eat Mexican food more often?
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, one of the dirty little secrets of why so many Americans love San Miguel is that it allows them to live in a comfortable gringo bubble. Thanks to an influx of tourists and expats mostly from the U.S. but also Canada and Australia and even a few from New Zealand and Britain, San Miguel has gradually become Mexican-ish or Mexican-light, and less genuinely Mexican. Perhaps that's the inevitable price of living off the tourists.  

You can live here with no more Spanish than "Buenos días" and "Gracias." I've witnessed Americans become miffed with waiters or other service personnel who don't speak English to their satisfaction. Others complain that a recent "invasion" of San Miguel by "chilangos"—weekend visitors from Mexico City—might be ruining our little San Miguel. As pretentious and annoying as young chilangos can be, we momentarily forget that this is, after all, their country.

Indeed, English speakers attach themselves to English-speaking venues like barnacles on a pier. We socialize in English-speaking bridge clubs, churches and volunteer associations. For entertainment we have English-speaking theaters and movies. A small grocery store regularly imports American indispensables like canned Texas chili and even grits.

The self-segregation by Americans is most noticeable in restaurants. Hecho en México is probably the busiest in town and on many days it's packed with nothing but Americans attracted by such delicacies as reuben sandwiches (my favorite) and fish and chips (Stew's). On Mondays you can get meatloaf at the American-owned La Frontera restaurant, on the way in or out of the all-American bridge club venue next door. Variations of Italian restaurants abound, offering the all familiar pastas and sauces but nothing Mexican except the waiters.

Reuben, we're going to miss you. 
Before getting too preachy, let's admit that, even after almost eleven years here, Stew and I are very much trapped in that gringo bubble. For one thing, we don't have any Mexican friends that would invite us to dinner or vice-versa. Stew has surprised me recently with his growing command of Spanish, but it manifests usually when he has no choice but to string some words to get what he wants—or when I decline to play translator.

Our very predictable choice of restaurants recently has been Hecho, Firenze (a quite good continental restaurant), a place called The Restaurant, Cafe Monet, and Fat Boy, a new motorcycle bar with an incidental restaurant attached to it. There are some exceptions, such as El Vergel, outside of town, that offers some good and original Mexican dishes. But in general, Mexican cuisine enters our gullets only accidentally, such as during the wonderful and unexpected Mexican lunch we had at our friend's ranch.
It's only natural to try to soften the inevitable alienation of moving to a foreign country by hanging out at familiar places frequented by people like yourself. But it also negates the excitement of learning new ways of living and celebrating life in a foreign country. Isn't that why we came to Mexico?

Most noticeable to me is our insulation from local celebrations or fiestas, which come and go often without us knowing even what's being celebrated. Just this weekend, on the main road past the ranch, we saw groups of people on horseback going and coming back from San Miguel, probably something to do with the Independence Day celebrations all this month. On other occasions I've seen religious processions of some sort passing by, with people carrying banners and statues of saints while singing or praying. Who or what were they honoring?

On one memorable occasion, I spotted a young couple decked out in full Mexican attire riding a horse, also decked out with a fancy saddle. The guy was as handsome as the girl was gorgeous. Were they on the way to get married or going on their honeymoon? I should have stopped and asked—and congratulated them.

I mentioned to Stew this morning we should accelerate our halting efforts at cultural acculturation. First, we should try restaurants that are not expat hangouts, including taco carts and smaller venues in town preferably those favored by the locals. I'll miss Hecho's reuben sandwiches, but we'll survive.

Second, I'm going to try to keep track of local celebrations, including fiestas in the nearby localities and find out what they're about. Are they marking some religious holiday or secular celebration? We've attended a couple of fiestas near the ranch but mostly looked around and left after an hour or so. We should stay long enough to talk to a few people (but before some of them begin to fall face-down drunk, sadly a common occurrence).  

Finally I'll try to encourage Stew to shift his efforts to learn Spanish from first to second gear. That may prove to be the most difficult step in this program. But there's hope: This morning he was checking a Spanish-language cookbook and found a recipe for a beef broth soup just like our friend served at his ranch. I can't wait.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dropping in on Holy Death

In most of Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, Catholicism is a double helix of institutional dogma intertwined with popular invention and fanaticism. When the hierarchy and encyclicals imported from Europe don't quite address the spiritual needs of the local folk, some just create their own, often more vivid, embellishments of the traditional Catholic canon.

On each of our trips to San Antonio, Texas—a mind-deadening, twelve-hour driving marathon through mostly barren landscapes—we'd noticed signs pointing the roadside Chapel of the Holy Death and had intended to stop and check it out. It's hard to miss: a squat, bright-blue mini-church missing only the usual crucifix on top.

C'mon in, you lily-livered non-believers. 
What went on in the chapel? Why would someone pray to or worship Death? Isn't that against usual human instincts to live? Do Death's devotees solicit help with their daily vicissitudes? And by the way, is Death a He or a She?

Even though I've grown into a grumpy agnostic borderline atheist, I still hesitate to proclaim my skepticism too loudly about either one of the two strands of Catholicism—the formal church or the outlier cults and superstitions like the veneration of Holy Death, quite widespread throughout Mexico, or santería, even more popular in my native Cuba.

Other Latino non-believers often conceal similar doubts and fears with a really lame caveat: "No creo en eso, pero sí le tengo respeto."  "I don't believe in all that, but I do respect it." In other words, you never know.

So each time we went past the shrine to Holy Death, a scuffle broke out in my head between curiosity and fear of whatever went on in the chapel. Fear invariably won. We just kept on driving, weaving through the caravan of semis clogging the highway. Whatever it is, we'd better not mess with it.

Last Saturday, curiosity finally won and it brought to mind some of the mixed-message religious beliefs with which I grew up in Cuba, where staid old-world Catholicism mixes with the feverish, drum-beating African beliefs brought to the island by Nigerian slaves. The result is santería, which thrives despite the scorn of the mainline Catholic church.

Even Fidel, and his deposed predecessor Batista, were said to have their personal santería priests, to help them navigate through the turbulence of Cuban politics. It didn't work out so well for Batista, though he slipped out of the island and on to a very comfortable retirement in Spain.

At home my mother kept a small but centrally located altar to Santa Barbara, a versatile saint who was a central figure in both the Catholic and santería pantheons. Our statue of Santa Barbara was about eighteen inches tall, decorated with a tiny metal crown and chalice, plus a sword she held on her left hand and could be set to point up or down, I suspect depending on my mother's spiritual moods or in case of some family emergency.

Santa Barbara supplies available
from a vendor in California. 
Along the traditional Catholic iconography, at the foot of the small altar, my mother occasionally placed bananas, apples or other fruits in compliance with santería traditions. You never know. So you cover all the bases.

Growing up I developed chronic bronchial asthma, a wheezing, relentless malady I wouldn't wish on anyone. I went to doctors who prescribed inhalers and other medications, in addition to shots of penicillin, the cure-all back in the fifties. All to no avail.

So my parents consulted a santera—a santería priestess or practitioner—who proposed an unorthodox cure. I imagine that by now my parents had given up on the usual Catholic prayers and invocations.

So at sunrise the next Easter morning we went out to the countryside and stood at the foot of a ceiba tree, one of the largest trees in the island. There, the santera, after mumbling what sounded like some Catholic prayer, probably spiced with ñáñigo, a language brought from Africa by the slaves, cut a lock of my hair and solemnly tucked it into a cut she had made on the trunk of the ceiba. She predicted my asthma would be cured when the incision healed.
A giant ceiba tree, similar to the one
that cured my asthma. Maybe. 

It worked.

Or did it? My asthma went away just about the time I came to the U.S. Maybe I was allergic to something in Cuba. Maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe yet, santería might have done the trick. Hence my allegiance to both agnosticism and back-of-the-head respect for religious mumbo-jumbo, even some of the more far-fetched beliefs. You just never know.

The Chapel of the Holy Death, is located about two-thirds of the way home between the exits to the cities of Matahuala and San Luis Potosí in a landscape that is fittingly dismal. The soil is a whitish clay that resembles cracked plaster. Vegetation is sparse except for mesquites and a species of tall cacti tilted in all directions as if they were periscopes peering through the dust for a way out of this unforgiving patch of nature.

Signs of human habitation were equally scarce, mostly a few dingy cafes and restaurants and a vulcanizing and tire repair shop, the typical establishments in parts of Mexico where even bare survival is a daily struggle.

Your choice: Lunch, some freshly vulcanized tires or a live chicken.
We overshot our exit by about a kilometer, where a short and frail woman, carrying a bare-assed two- or three-year-old boy and two other children, promptly approached the car and asked us if we wanted to buy some cacti. Instead of a restaurant or a tire shop she had set up a cactus nursery. Give her credit for ingenuity.

Most of her sere offerings were pathetic but I found a couple of specimens I didn't have. She asked $150 pesos, a ridiculous sum that I promptly paid, so shaken was I by this family's misery. As Stew so often says, such are not rational commercial transactions but acts of income redistribution.

Heartened by our generosity, the woman took us to the patio of her ramshackle dwelling and offered to sell us songbirds, pants, socks, shoes and even a three-inch coyote fang she produced from her pocket. It would make a fine necklace, she said. I passed.

OK, how about a coyote fang?
As we turned around and approached the Chapel of the Holy Death, my trepidations ebbed. It was a bright-blue, almost cheery building that someone kept meticulously painted, with a palapa in front under which a young guy was working on a battered 1997 Ford Taurus. He was installing a string of lights over the windshield, surely the last thing that vehicle needed.

Even before we'd exited the highway I had warned Stew not too giggle, point or show any disrespect to anything or anyone in the shrine. I didn't want to piss off Holy Death, or more immediately, some of his or her followers who might be offended and come after us with a machete.

After a brief and grumpy conversation with the young man working on his car, an attractive bosomy woman carrying a four- or five-month old named Darwin approached us as if to ask about the nature of our business.

I introduced myself and politely, rather obsequiously, asked her if she was a believer in the cult of the Holy Death and could she provide any details. Though she lived next door to the chapel she claimed not to know anything about its function, except that believers came by occasionally to pick up a statue from inside the chapel and take it home for a fiesta.

"Why would you bring a statue of Holy Death to a fiesta?" I asked. She explained that the fiestas were religious celebrations on important religious holidays.

The chapel included a kneeling bench. 
The inside of the chapel was no more than four hundred square feet. The walls were lined with rows of statues, some three or four feet tall, most decorated with lavish costumes that included a hood to cover—you guessed it—a skull. Some of the skulls, life-sized and amber-colored, looked like they once belonged to someone. Bony fingers protruded out of some of the sleeves. The only light came from a skylight and dozens of candles flickering at the foot of this bone-chilling line-up. What looked like a small stone birdbath or baptismal font sat in the middle of the room, and held a handful of wilted red roses.

In addition, one of the walls was filled with framed prayers, testimonials and declarations by people who apparently had been helped by Holy Death. One testimonial was a photo of a tanker-truck driver beseeching Holy Death for his or her protection.

May we help you?
I kept a safe distance from all the testimonials while Stew began checking the backs of the pictures, as if this were a flea market. A passport-size color photo of a handsome thirty-something man fell out from one of the pictures. Was he dead? Or had he been saved from some horrible fate?

Stew was baptized in a small-gauge church in Iowa that unlike Roman Catholicism did not burden him with any sense of religious guilt, fear, hell or damnation. The chapel was no more than a curiosity.  Lucky him.

I respectfully, almost fearfully, put the photo on the shelf—I couldn't tell which framed testimonial it had come from—and urged Stew to keep his hand off the relics, followed by "let's get the hell out of here."

Testimonials or pleas to Holy Death
On the way back to the car I was confronted by a potentially existential dilemma: A spray-painted sign offered votive candles for twenty pesos. Which would it be? Should we risk dissing Holy Death by not buying a candle? Or incur the institutional wrath of the Roman Catholic Church which harrumphs at the cult of Holy Death as sacrilege or worse, and could put me on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates for all eternity?

I paused for a second before my Guardian Angel helpfully whispered in my ear: "Get back in the car and go home, you fools."